Her father was officially exonerated.
Sierra Lyons swallowed down the bile burning her throat as fear clamped like a vise around her lungs. With a shaking finger, she scrolled through the article detailing Oliver Patterson’s victory on her phone. A Chicago jury had found him not guilty of murdering his business partner. The trial had played on the news for weeks. Oliver held himself out as a successful entrepreneur, but authorities suspected he was the leader of Blackstorm, a mafia-style organization involved in drugs, illegal weapons, and human trafficking. The FBI could never gather enough evidence to prove it though.
Sierra wasn’t surprised. Her father was as slick as Teflon and as deadly as a rattlesnake.
Accompanying the article were several photographs. Oliver stood in front of the courthouse. His graying hair was slicked back from a face hardened by hatred and time. Flanking his side was his wife, Cece. Plastic surgery and Botox, aided by good genetics, made her appear thirty, although she was well into her fifties. She was dressed for court in a demure navy suit and pearls. If she was bothered by the accusations against her husband, it didn’t show in the photographs.
It was difficult for Sierra to imagine her mother in Cece’s position. Gwen had been a kind-hearted woman with a heart of gold. Initially, she hadn’t realized the kind of man she’d married, and after discovering Oliver’s true nature seven years into their marriage, it’d taken months to plan an escape. Sierra had been seven, her younger sister four, when their mother whisked them away in the middle of the night.
Moving to Texas, along with obtaining new identities, had shielded them from Oliver’s reach. But it hadn’t brought peace. Sierra’s childhood had been one move after another, her mother constantly fearful. With good reason. The words her father had spoken from the time she could remember echoed in her ears.
Loyalty is everything. Never go against the family, my darling girl. Never.
A shudder rippled down her spine. Did her father have anything to do with the recent deaths of her sister and brother-in-law? It seemed unlikely. Lucy and Paul had been killed two weeks ago in a single-car accident on a rainy night while on their way home from an anniversary dinner. Law enforcement had assured Sierra there was nothing suspicious about the tragedy, but she’d been frightened enough to fall back on habits engrained since childhood. A go-bag was stashed in the closet in her house, another in a locker at the bus station. Just in case.
She glanced at the photograph of her father once more. She’d kept abreast of his movements since learning the truth about her family. Everything she’d read, everything her mother told her, confirmed what her gut already knew. Oliver would kill her, given the chance. She gripped her cell phone so tightly her knuckles turned white.
Stop. There’s no way he knows where you are.
Jacqueline Patterson didn’t exist anymore. She’d been replaced by Sierra Lyons, and for twenty years, the new ID had kept her safe. There was no reason to believe that wasn’t the case anymore. She’d lived in Austin for the last five years. If her father had located Sierra, he would’ve ordered his henchmen to murder her long ago.
Sierra took a deep breath to calm her nerves and clicked off the phone before climbing out of the car. Dusk had fallen hours ago. Exhaustion seeped into her muscles. Her nephew, Daniel, was asleep in the car seat. Plump cheeks curved toward a soft chin. A blue knitted cap was pulled low on his head, protecting him from the evening chill, and a blanket was wrapped around his small form. He looked blessedly peaceful. It was a rare occurrence. Daniel was a sweetheart but prone to colic, which is why Sierra had spent the last hour driving aimlessly. Car rides had a magical way of lulling the infant into sleep.
That parenting tip had come from an online mom group Sierra joined out of desperation after she became Daniel’s sole guardian. Motherhood hadn’t been on her radar. She’d never spent any significant time with babies before Daniel was born, and even then, her interactions were limited. After her sister and brother-in-law were killed, Sierra was thrust into an entirely new life.
An owl hooted overhead. The wind kicked up, rustling the budding leaves on the oak tree and scenting the air with early spring flowers. Sierra glanced at the dark house, debating her options. If she moved Daniel inside, she risked waking him. She could sit in the car, maybe catch a bit of rest herself, but it was past dinnertime, and she was starving. Her stomach growled in response to the thought.
She eased the rear car door open. Daniel didn’t stir as Sierra reached around for the mechanism to release the carrier part of the car seat from the base. Now the hard part. She had to remove Daniel, carrier and all, from the vehicle without disturbing him. Yesterday, she’d failed. The result had been two solid hours of pacing, rocking, and tears—Daniel’s and hers. Sierra sent up a silent prayer to the Lord, took a deep breath, and lifted the baby gently before slipping from the back seat.
Success. Relief slipped through her, releasing some of the tension knotting her neck muscles. Sierra didn’t bother to grab the diaper bag that also served as her purse. It could stay in the vehicle for now. Using her hip, she gently shut the car door and then hurried up the walkway to the front door.
The inside of the house was dim. A lone bulb in the kitchen illuminated the mess scattered across the open living space. A pile of clean clothes sat on a couch cushion, the television remote was on the floor, and the kitchen table held a stack of unopened mail. Cleaning these days was a luxury. Juggling a newborn and overwhelming grief alongside her late sister’s affairs hadn’t been easy. Especially since she was doing it alone. Thankfully, her job as an accountant allowed Sierra to work from home.
She gingerly set Daniel on the living room carpet. The baby twitched inside the carrier, his eyes fluttering open, hands and feet moving under the blanket. Panic sent Sierra’s heart skittering. She froze.
Please, don’t wake up. Please, don’t wake up.
Daniel settled back into sleep with a sigh, his rosebud mouth mimicking the movements of nursing. It brought a smile to Sierra’s face even as her heart swelled. Sleepless nights, spit-up on her clothes, barely having time to take a shower…all of it paled in comparison to the love she had for this little boy. He’d captured her heart, and there wasn’t anything Sierra wouldn’t do for him. He was all the family she had left.
She glanced at her watch. With any luck, Daniel would sleep for another two hours. Long enough for her to catch a quick bite and a cat nap before his next feeding. She’d leave him in the carrier for the time being. He was comfortable and warm. Daniel also seemed to prefer the nestled embrace of the carrier to the wide expanse of his crib anyway.
Sierra went into the kitchen. Her cell phone vibrated and she glanced at the caller ID. It was her sister’s probate lawyer, Adam Nichols. Sierra answered the call, tucking the phone against her ear while taking the electric kettle to the sink. She wanted tea.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Ms. Lyons, but there’s been a mix-up here at the office and I thought you should know immediately.” The older man’s voice was clipped and to the point. Sierra envisioned him pacing the length of his office, the bookshelves behind him loaded down with legal reference novels. “I’ve located a personal letter addressed to you from your sister.”
Sierra flipped off the faucet, certain she’d heard him incorrectly. “Excuse me?”
“I know this must be a shock. This is an inexcusable lapse on my part. My secretary was on personal leave when your sister dropped off the letter with implicit instructions to deliver it to you with the will. Unfortunately, it was misfiled by the temp working in my office at the time. I’m very sorry. We located the letter today, and I thought you should know immediately.”
Her gaze shot to a photograph attached to the refrigerator with a magnet. Lucy was sitting in a hospital bed with newborn Daniel nestled in her arms. Her dark hair was pulled away from her face, her expression one of pure joy and love as she gazed down at her son. “When did my sister write the letter?”
“I can’t say precisely, but it was about two weeks after Lucy and Paul finalized their wills and Daniel’s guardianship,” Adam said. “I’ll be in the office first thing in the morning if you’d like to stop by and pick it up. Again, I’m very sorry for the confusion.”
Sierra shared a goodbye with the lawyer and hung up. She tossed her phone on the counter. Her sister had written a letter? Why?
And did Sierra want to read it?
Tears sprang to her eyes at the thought of seeing her sister’s handwriting. She blindly turned, gripped the handle of the fridge, and opened it with more force than necessary. Condiment bottles rattled in the door. Her stomach churned, the news of her father’s exoneration and the crushing pain of losing her only sibling mingling together like a rolling thunderstorm. Cold air washed across her heated cheeks. She didn’t feel like eating anymore. Still, she forced herself to grab a box of leftover takeout Chinese. The baby needed her. She had to be strong and keep putting one foot in front of the other for Daniel’s sake.
The sound of bubbling water from the electric kettle drew Sierra from her thoughts. She shut the fridge door.
A man stood on the other side.
Sierra screamed. He shoved her and the takeout box dropped from her hand as she collided with the countertop. Pain rippled up her spine. In less time than it took to blink, the intruder was on her, his weight trapping Sierra between him and the cabinets. An unyielding arm wedged against her throat, choking the last of her breath from her lungs, and the barrel of a handgun pressed against the side of her cheekbone.
Sierra stilled. Shock and confusion gave way to icy fear as she stared into the man’s face. He wasn’t wearing a mask. She didn’t recognize him, but the lack of concealment told Sierra all she needed to know.
He intended to kill her.
“Where is it?” A sneer twisted his lips, and his eyes were dark recesses, flat and cold. Evil poured from him, more terrifying than even the handgun pressed against her face. This man had murdered before. A professional.
Her father had found her. Sierra mentally berated herself for not trusting her own instincts, for relying on the police report about her sister’s death. She wasted precious time, and now, the mistake could cost Sierra her life.
The attacker pressed the weapon harder against her cheekbone. “I asked you a question. Where are the files?”
Files? What files? Sierra had no idea what he was talking about. Her heart thrummed in her ears, faster than a hummingbird’s wings. She tried to draw in a breath, but the arm at her throat and the weight of her attacker prevented it. Black spots danced in front of her vision. She clawed at his arm, but if her nails caused him any pain, it didn’t register in his expression. How could she provide the answer he wanted if she passed out?
Maybe he didn’t care. In fact, her struggles only seemed to amuse him. Her fist connected with his jaw and his ugly sneer turned even more predatory. The attacker pressed the weapon harder against her cheekbone and then turned toward someone else lurking in the mudroom. “Get the kid. I’ll take care of her.”
The blackness was closing in. Sierra’s focus narrowed to the attacker’s face and a tidbit of information from the self-defense course she’d taken cut through her panic.
She jabbed at his eyes.
The hitman howled in pain. The pressure against her throat vanished, and she sucked in a breath. The victory was short-lived. He reared up and blindly grabbed at her. “You’ll pay for that!”
Sierra’s body flew through the air as he tossed her like a rag doll. She collided with the opposite countertop, her flailing arms knocking over jars of sugar and flour. The glass shattered against the tile floor. A cry came from the other room. Daniel. Footsteps—the other hitman, no doubt returning to see what had caused his comrade to scream—raced toward the kitchen.
She couldn’t let them take her nephew. Sierra drew in another shallow breath, her gaze landing on the electric kettle within reach. Glass crunched as the second intruder entered the kitchen.
Without giving herself time to second guess, Sierra grasped the kettle’s plastic handle and spun, jabbing her thump onto the button to pop open the top of the appliance. The men screamed as boiling water flew onto their faces and clothes.
She tossed the kettle at the closest one’s head for good measure before spinning on her heel and racing for the living room. Daniel was still strapped in his carrier, mouth wide open, face red from his wails. Sierra scooped him up without missing a step, her attention locked on the front door. She paused only long enough to snag her keys from the rack next to the door. The sounds of the men screaming from the kitchen followed her out of the house and into the yard.
Get away, get away, get away.
The mantra played over and over again in her head. She nearly slipped on the pine needles covering the driveway while racing to her vehicle. Within seconds, she snapped Daniel’s carrier into its base. The little boy’s wails broke her heart, but there was no time to comfort him. Not if they were to survive.
Two hitmen meant more could be nearby. Her father could’ve placed a bounty on her head. Any number of criminals could be descending, each one of them determined to murder her to receive payment and Oliver’s favor.
Help me, God.
It was the only prayer she could come up with between her bouncing, fear-driven thoughts. Sierra slid into the driver’s seat. Her hands shook violently, and she dropped the keys. They clattered against the floorboard.
“No!” She frantically fumbled for them, her fingers brushing against the cold metal. She grabbed them, popping up from underneath the steering wheel.
A large, looming shadow appeared in the doorway of the house.
Sierra bit back a scream and jabbed the keys into the ignition. The engine turned over, just as the man raised his weapon. She shoved the car into gear and hit the gas.
Gunshots erupted, mingling with Daniel’s cries.